‘Cabin in the Woods’ features are usually incredibly straightforward; a killer on the loose, a quick possession or two or perhaps even the woods themselves act as a character. A typical format would select one of those standard proceedings and ultimately result in a fantastic bloodbath with potential for the spawning of a new cult character. Brad Baruh’s directorial debut Dead Night however, decides to take a crack at too many of these ideas at once in a stylish yet overcrowded take on an axe murderer story.
We are introduced to Casey Pollack (Brea Grant) and her family on their way to Shand Healing Estates, a remote cabin in Oregon, where she hopes the healing powers of the iron oxide the cabin is built upon will heal her cancer-ridden husband James (AJ Bowden); given any previous knowledge of cabin film structure it’s easy to assume that this won’t be happening at all. It is here where Dead Night switches between two formats, narrative feature and a mockumentary true crime TV show, ‘Inside Crime’ that uncovers the motivations and mystery behind Casey Pollack, aka ‘Axe Mom’, and how she came to murder her entire family during that spring vacation. It’s an original and intriguing approach; watching the supernatural narrative unfold as another segment questions the legitimacy of what you’ve just seen through police work and expert interviews.
Where the film could have successfully delved into psychological horror through this highly successful multiple viewpoint set-up, its supernatural elements fast become the focal point and engulf the rest of the runtime. After James heads out into the forest for firewood (unveiling some bewitching snow-lit cinematography from Kenton Drew Johnson), he discovers a woman passed out in the snow, taking her back to the cabin she reveals herself to be Leslie Bison (Barbara Crampton) and her mysterious behaviour sets off the motions for the families ultimate demise. Soon, creatures are emerging, rituals are taking place, blood is spurting everywhere and everything has quite frankly become awash with madness.
This is not to say that any of the individual elements of the film are inherently bad, the creature/character design is largely unique and at moments unforgettably creepy. The lore that writers Baruh and Irving Walker devised for the creatures is also a fresh spin on a classic icon, the retro cinematography is far too impressive for a film of this nature and the practical effects are always a welcome offering. The trouble is that Baruh juggles them all in such an ultimately confusing way that rather than the ‘two unique perspectives’ the film originally offered it begins to feel like up to four separate films. Even standout moments from horror icon Barbara Crampton don’t feel fully utilised with more questions than answers by the time the film ends.
Baruh’s debut is certainly a film that would benefit from knowing as little as possible before going in, at least allowing you to be swept up in its attempts at a fresh take on the cabin in the woods film that will certainly find a place amongst midnight movie audiences. Dead Night certainly boasts originality and style but requires the refinement of a more seasoned filmmaker to wade through this forest of ideas.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here